Kids Web Japan

What is Kyudo?

How Kyudo Began

The bow and arrow began to be used more than 10,000 years ago for hunting and in war. In the Nara (710–794) and Heian (794–1185) periods they were utilized in rituals dedicated to the gods; it was around this time that Kyudo, meaning "the way of the bow," made its appearance in events held at the Imperial court.

In 1543 firearms called matchlocks were introduced to Japan by a shipwrecked Portuguese crew who landed on Tanegashima, an island off Kyushu that's a part of present-day Kagoshima Prefecture. After this, the role of the bow and arrow in battle declined, but as members of the ruling class, warriors continued to train themselves in kyudo because they considered it important as a mark of their refinement.

Bishamonten (Vaiśravaṇa), Extermination of Evil (Hekija-e): The god Bishamonten exterminates demons and evil spirits with a bow and arrow (Nara National Museum, Source: ColBase)

Toshiya, the Traditional Japanese Archery Contest at Sanjusangendo

An event called toshiya was held during the Edo period (1603–1867) at the Sanjusangendo (the main hall of Rengeo-in, a temple in Kyoto) in which warriors would compete in kyudo to see who had the greatest physical and mental strength. They would try to shoot arrows through the length of the long, narrow hall—2.2 meters (approx. 7.2 feet) wide by 5 meters (approx. 16 feet) high, and 120 meters (approx. 394 feet) long—without hitting the walls, floor, or ceiling. What's more, each contestant had to spend an entire day and night shooting arrows in sitting position.

Warriors who were confident of their archery skills would enter the contest and compete to see who could make the best shots. The best archer in toshiya was Wasa Daihachiro of the Kishu domain (the domain of the Kishu-Tokugawa clan that spanned modern day Wakayama Prefecture and southern Mie Prefecture during the Edo period), who took 13,053 shots in a single contest, out of which 8,133 were successful.

Sanjusangendo where toshiya, the traditional Japanese archery contest, was held.

In the Meiji period (1868-1912) kyudo was brought into the school curriculum, and today many universities, high schools, and middle schools offer kyudo instruction either in class or as an extracurricular activity. Since archers can adjust the tension of the bow according to their own strength, kyudo is popular as a sport that men and women of all ages can enjoy.

The All Japan Kyudo Championship held at Ise Shrine. (All Nippon Kyudo Federation)
The All Japan Kyudo Enteki Championship held at Meiji Shrine (All Nippon Kyudo Federation)

At Kyoto's Sanjusangendo, where the toshiya contests were once held, the National Omato Tournament takes place every year, in which each archer aims several arrows at a target 60 meters away. Only adults are allowed to compete, so the tournament is always held on a Sunday close to Coming of Age Day (a celebration on the second Monday of January for those who have recently, or will soon, turn 20 years old). Over 1,000 people participate in the contest each year, including these new adults.

The National Omato Tournament held at Sanjusangendo. (All Nippon Kyudo Federation)